Corfu, Greece’s most northern Ionian island, is a gem of tranquility all year round, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
The tiny monastery island of Vlakhérna is lit for a wedding with hundreds of candles that barely flicker in the still evening air as the sun sets. The picture-postcard Ionian sea, dazzlingly blue and calm, is dotted with white fishing boats.
Little ripples of laughter and snatches of conversation from arriving guests punctuate the warm evening and, in the background, the even tinier island of Pontikonísi, or Mouse Island, is crowned by a whitewashed Byzantine chapel surrounded by cypress trees.
Corfu, the northernmost Ionian island, has been a holiday destination since Roman times, treasured into antiquity for its beauty. Such a gem, combining fertile agricultural land and a safe harbour, it’s been the centre of many the historic battle, but its tranquillity and laid-back, cheery inhabitants bely its military past.
Everything is to a charmingly diminutive scale in this Lilliputian paradise where olive groves climb up the craggy, mountainous uplands and archaeological ruins, beaches and tavernas compete for sun-drunk tourists’ attention.
The capital, Corfu town or Kerkyra as it’s also known, is a good place to start as, unless you arrive by ferry from Igoumenitsa to Lefkimi in the south, you will arrive in either the port or airport, both of which are adjacent to Corfu town.
Corfu Old Town’s elegant Italianate architecture and worn flagstone paving is charming, but in peak season it’s thronged with shopping tourists and the boutiques full of ostentatious riches and big-brand fashion seem somehow sad.
Gerald Durrell’s autobiographical accounts of his life on the island as a child spring to mind: what would it have been like to see this untouched, in the 1930s?
Corfu’s central market is a foodie’s paradise, with covered fish stalls sporting the bounty of the Ionian sea and fruit and vegetables to die for — baby courgettes each with their withered flower still attached, fragrant lemons and Sykomaida, the distinctive Corfiot discs of dried fig wrapped in leaves and twine.
Stroll away from the hubbub south down Leof Dimokratias, between the sea and the eucalyptus-scented park, for a dip at Anemomilos, the windmill at the edge of Garitsa bay, whose pier is a popular swimming spot with locals of all ages.
There’s no body police here, just relaxed Greek families having a good time: jolly grannies help wriggling toddlers into the water next to teens sunning themselves and flirting inexpertly.
Further on, past hilly Kanóni, you’ll stumble on the view of Pontikonísi, and if you want a closer look, hire a water taxi in Kanóni harbour. Otherwise, venture across the walkway that links to Perama a couple of kilometres outside the town; from here, planes landing at the airport seem about to take a death-defying plunge into the sea, and people congregate for the thrill of them soaring in low overhead.
Stop to join them? The whole rest of the island awaits and your holiday has just begun, but Corfu is all about the pleasures of the here and now.
Connecting flights from Athens run hourly year-round.
To reach remoter spots rent a car or try a scooter from King’s Rent-A-Car or Scootermania, both on the main road to Corfu town centre from the port.
Corfu is a wonderful walker’s destination. Mount Pantokrator is the highest point of the island at 908m, with views of Albania and the Greek mainland and there’s a café and small monastery on the top. For a gentler walk, try the 5km ascent from Paleokastritsa in the west to the unspoilt village of Lakones, which is fantastic for coastal views.
Drop by the Mavroudis family’s olive oil press and museum in the village of Vraganiotika, where brothers Spiros and Vangelis will explain the rich culture of olive oil production the island is renowned for; the tour includes tastings of their oils.
Nissaki, 22km from Corfu town, is a pebble beach renowned for the clarity of its waters.
Drop by Karmela’s Pharmacy, the oldest pharmacy in Corfu town, at 56 George Theotoki Avenue. It was founded in 1850 and specialises in “spetsieriko,” the traditional spice blend.
Aristedes Studios is a pleasant condo-style block of units outside Perama, where €50 per night gets a double room with kitchenette and bathroom, as well as private off-street parking and a communal games room.
There’s a choice of hotels of every standard, but with produce this mouth-wateringly fresh on offer, it may be worth considering self-catering: Airbnb has many options.
Ognistra is a traditional Corfiot Taverna in chef Nikos Chirdaris’ house in the stunning 13th century village of Palaia Peritheia. 50km from Corfu town along a coastal road and in the foothills of Mount Pantokrator, it could be worked into a very pleasant days’ itinerary. Classic Corfiot offerings like Veal Sofrito or orange and chilli salad.
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